Towering clouds and violent thunderstorms highlight this artist's vision of the atmosphere of Jupiter, the solar system's largest planet. The atmosphere offers all the basic ingredients for life, including water, energy, and organic compounds, suggesting that exotic microbes could live there. Turbulence in the atmosphere, however, would make it difficult for any organism to remain at an altitude where conditions are comfortable for life. [NASA]
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Moon and Jupiter
Jupiter, the Sun’s largest planet, doesn’t have a solid surface. So we won’t find any critters walking or crawling across it. But it’s not out of the question that life could exist in the outer atmosphere — especially microscopic life.
Jupiter is a big ball of gas. The gases get hotter and denser as you drop deeper into the planet. In the top few hundred miles, though, conditions could be acceptable for life.
45 years ago, astronomers Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter suggested that a whole ecosystem might inhabit that zone, in and around Jupiter’s massive clouds. They envisioned miles-wide “floaters” — gas-filled bags that look like jellyfish. And they suggested that nimble “hunters” might prey on the floaters — like sharks eating other fish in the oceans.
Today, large organisms are considered highly unlikely. Among other problems, the atmosphere is so turbulent that it would push them too high or too low to survive.
Yet it’s possible that microbes could live in the atmosphere. There’s a good supply of the chemistry needed for life. And sunlight and powerful lightning could supply the energy. So while it’s not likely, it is possible that we might someday find life on the solar system’s biggest planet.
And Jupiter is putting in a big appearance. It rises at sunset and is in view all night. It looks like a brilliant star, low in the east-southeast at nightfall. Tonight, it’s quite close to the full Moon.
Script by Damond Benningfield
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